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The power of the list

Here are two facts about this ambition / profession of ours that can look daunting:

  1. It’s damn hard to write a good book
  2. It’s damn hard to sell it, once written.

On point 1: well, who cares? If it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be fun. You wouldn’t have the joy and satisfaction that comes from doing a difficult thing well.

And on 2: well, yes. Good point. Gulp.

It’s true that you can write a great book, get a great agent, sell to a great publisher, work hard with a great editor, and then, yes, you stand a chance of selling very well.

It’s also possible that you complete those steps, but when the publisher’s sales team pitches to the supermarkets, the supermarkets just say no. And if they say no, that’s not because you’re a terrible author and you’ve written a terrible book. Those things might be true of course, but the supermarkets wouldn’t know. They haven’t read your book.

To a huge and underappreciated extent, the race for supermarket sales (as far as debut or near-debut authors is concerned) is like twelve fat men running for the same door. Only one of the runners is going to make it and which one actually does is a matter of chance more than athleticism.

In short, beyond a point, there’s not much you can do to influence sales through bricks and mortar retailers. You can go secure that great editor. You can work hard. You can smile sweetly at sales conferences (if you get asked) and all that stuff. But you just can’t influence those critical decisions. You aren’t even in the room, or anywhere near it.

But all that doesn’t mean you can’t be highly pro-active as a modern author. Nor do you have to self-publish to reap the rewards.

Here’s the thing:

The most powerful way to sell on Amazon is via your own mailing list – your very own group of fans.

The detail of building and using that list is relatively intricate. Not because it’s so inherently complicated, but because this is an area where detail matters. Exactly how do you solicit email addresses? What do you offer in exchange? What language should you use? How you solve those things can make a huge cumulative difference to how many emails you get (and what quality those emails are.)

But that’s detail.

The essence of selling via mailing list is really simple:

  1. You find people who like your books
  2. You offer them something that they want – probably a shortish story if you’re a novelist, something helpful if you’re writing subject-led non-fiction.
  3. People sign up to get the thing they’re after. They also (knowingly and happily) sign up to get regular emails from you.
  4. In those emails, you are charming, discursive, & helpful … and concentrate fiercely on the topic that brought these readers to you in the first place
  5. When you have a new book to sell, you say “Hey guys, do you want my book?”
  6. They buy it

But that’s not the clever bit! That’s not the bit that explodes your sales and stuffs dollars into your bank account until you fall back laughing, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”

The clever bit is this:

  1. Amazon notices the sales spike that your emails has generated
  2. Amazon’s little marketing robots get so excited that binary starts spouting out of their sockets
  3. Amazon itself starts to pump news of your book out to all the readers it thinks are most likely to love it. That’ll be via emails, via “recommended for you” banners, via Hot New Release promos, and much else.
  4. A ton more people start to come across your work … and to buy it … and to discover the wonderful news that you are giving away a wonderful short story …

And the whole process begins again.

This is the critical motor that powers every really successful self-pub author’s career. It’s the trick that took me to six-figure sales in the US on the back of just 6 self-published books. It’s why even really advertising-competent authors (like Mark Dawson) say that the three most important things in digital bookselling are “mailing list, mailing list, mailing list.”

And you can use that trick no matter whether you’re planning on a traditional publishing career, or on self-publishing, or on a hybrid of the two. I’d go so far as to say, there are almost no categories of author that shouldn’t be thinking of building and nurturing an email list. (More details here, if you need them.)

Say, for example, you are traditionally published and your publisher just messes up. You have the advance, but your book sales are disappointing, and your career looks fatally wounded. If you emerge from the wreckage with the start of a decent mailing list, then you have built an asset that will support and protect you for years and years to come. My US trad publishing career did crash and burn (thanks, Random House!), but my US publishing career just went from strength to strength.

Good books + mailing list = a strategy that never fails.

And two other plus points:

 A mailing list prompts you to write a “reader magnet”. That magnet doesn’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – a full length book. I use two magnets for my fiction, one of 7,000 words, one of 13,000. Those things are too long for short stories. They’re way too short for any publisher to want to buy and print them.

But they’re fun to write! And great for readers! They feel like a holiday from work, while being absolutely core to the work you want to do.

And hey: once you have a mailing list, you can do almost anything. If you’re minded to write a 25,000 word story – for which, to repeat, no traditional publisher would pay – then you can write it and sell it via your mailing list, for $0.99 if you’re feeling generous, or $2.99 if you’re not. The basic mailing list strategy will still (once your list is somewhat mature) deliver real dividends.

If I had to pick just one brilliant thing about publishing in the last decade or so, I’d have to pick the rise of Amazon and the e-book. If I got to pick two, I’d pick the list-driven sales strategy every time. Nothing, but nothing, but nothing, has empowered authors more.

That’s true if you’re trad.

It’s true if you’re indie.

It’s true if you’re an exciting hybrid of the two, with the head of a goat on the body of donkey.

That’s it from me. It’s sunny. And in the cricket, England are about to start batting …

Till soon


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Comments (2)
  • Hang on, Harry.  Essence of selling, number I: you find people who like your books.  How?  Apart from a few friends, colleagues and your cousin who you haven't seen for over five years.


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    • That's a good question. It's answered, properly, in our self-pub course, but in a nutshell the answer is this:

      If you're trad, then just get the benefit of everything your trad publisher is doing. Just make sure that you offer the reader magnet attractively in the ebook version of your book.

      If you're indie, and have no prior exposure, then your options are:

      1. Book promo sites (Robin Reads, ENT, Bookbub, Freebooksy, etc)

      2. Prolific Works (Instafreebie as was.) Also now Bookfunnel

      3. Amazon ads

      4. Cross-promos with other authors

      And so on!

      None of these things will necessarily make you money upfront. But with book #1 of your first series, you're looking to build assets that will pay off down the line. What you're after is readers, and emails, and once you have those things, you can start to earn $$$.

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